To Fix the Problem, You Must Own It

By Allyn Brooks-LaSure.

“How can you represent that country?” He asked, part curious, part incredulous. While serving in Melbourne, Australia as a U.S. diplomat, I fumbled for a quick response to my Afro-Aussie friend’s question. Frozen amid friends in that bustling restaurant, I could only squeak a muted “What? What do you mean?” 

He continued, now with everyone’s attention: “Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. The shooting in that church. Slavery. The KKK … How can you wear that flag pin on your lapel? How can you represent that country?”

The answer to his troubling question was complicated in 2015. But it seems nearly impossible to answer in 2020. Particularly, for a people in mourning. And 2020 has given us much to mourn.

We mourn a global pandemic which cast a spotlight on policies that perpetuate our nation’s deeply rooted inequities. We mourn a democratic system that, by historical design and modern-day malice, excludes people of color from the process. We mourn politicians who want black votes at night, but not black expertise, partnership, or employees during the daylight. And we mourn a fatal racial theology that deifies whiteness while violently castigating black and brown peoples.

Black people particularly mourn the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. We mourn these lives because their deaths kill each of us just a little bit.  We mourn because we see ourselves in the faces of the fallen. Their lives reflect our lives. Their tragedy is our tragedy. Their marginalization is our marginalization. And, their murder is our murder. But there is more to it. 

We also mourn because even well-meaning white Americans more frequently see their reflections in the faces of the perpetrators than those of the fallen. That is tragic, for us and them. Because with each death, white America dies a little inside too. This decay has metastasized to every limb, organ, and major system of the body — all unbeknownst to them. Ultimately, this tragedy makes many white Americans the morally walking dead.

The fact that a fatal knee in George Floyd’s neck has riled the conscience of some white Americans is commendable. But if a knee in Mr. Floyd’s neck angers them, the 400-year-old knee of racism in the neck of all people of color should outrage them. If unrestrained police violence maddens white Americans, then unrestrained economic violence against black and brown communities should infuriate them. If a lie-filled (and potentially fatal) 911 call stirs them, then enduring lies of black sloth, inferiority, and criminality should inflame them. And if state-sanctioned discriminatory policies grieve some white Americans, then state-sanctioned mass incarceration should depress them.

Protest sign shows drawing of George Floyd and says "I Can't Breathe"

It is great that some Americans have finally seen enough, but exorcising the demons of racism will require more than tacit agreement, social media outrage, and belated wokeness. White America must move beyond mere fellowship, partnership, and allyship in confronting the problem. White America must end its sideline sympathy and assume full ownership of this problem. Own it.

If courageous people of color can brave dogs in Birmingham, horses and billy clubs in Selma, fire bombs in Florida, tear gas in Ferguson and Minneapolis, lynch mobs in Georgia — then well-meaning white people can brave awkward conversations on family Zoom calls, in work conference rooms, and at Thanksgiving dinner.

For white Americans, owning the problem begins with acknowledging the truth about themselves, our nation, and the policies that intensify our nation’s divides. They must acknowledge that they are the primary beneficiaries of the very racism and white supremacy that so many of them find to be repugnant — racism that they themselves sometimes dispense. Plainly speaking, white Americans must acknowledge and confront their inner Amy Cooper and America’s outer Amy Cooper. They must then do something about both.

White America must lead meaningful change by boldly rebuking all forms of modern-day racism — even when it is grandpa, a coworker at the mill, a suburban neighbor, or the boss perpetuating it. They can own the problem by leading a meaningful truth-telling process to acknowledge the nation’s unbroken chain of white supremacy from our founding in slavery to that Minneapolis street where officers duly-sworn to protect and serve the people instead protected white supremacy and served injustice. And as this process lays bare the residual power and wealth that perpetuates white supremacy, white America can begin to pay the unfathomable debt it owes.

Finally, white America can own the problem by driving the passage and implementation of policies and laws that undo centuries of tacit and explicit discrimination. Their advocacy can spur stronger and more equal housing laws, policing laws, education laws, criminal justice laws, health care laws, voting laws — the list goes on and on. To the well-meaning people who ask what you can do: that is where you can start. And it is just the beginning.

After composing myself during that cool Melbourne evening five years ago, I had an answer for my Aussie friend. I told him that my family traces its roots in this land — free and enslaved — for several hundred years. I am descended from the caste that fueled America’s wealth, inspired its cultural richness and genius, and served as the nation’s moral praetorian guard — fighting to ensure that America kept faith with the values we so liberally trumpet abroad. America is my country, I told him. Plain and simple. 

That response is still true — but it is wholly incomplete in the context of today’s violence against black and brown bodies. 

If I had the chance to explain myself again, I would say I wear the flag because I know its true meaning. Not the symbolism found in third grade lesson books. But what the flag means to me as a Black man: The blue represents the ocean my people traversed to arrive here. The stars, the midnight constellations guiding us to freedom. The white stripes are the rows of cotton and other goods that built this nation’s wealth. The red stripes are the streams of blood pouring down black and brown bodies spurred by American-style violence. Stripes that are further crimson-stained by the blood of George, Breonna, Ahmaud, and so many others.  

From the beginning, the price of admission and citizenship for Black people in this country has been a lifetime supply of our blood, our sweat, and our tears. And, often, an unimpeachable affection for a country that did not return our love. But we need more from our fellow citizens. We’ve paid enough. We’ve shed too many tears, held too many tributes, and eulogized too many bodies. Far worse, we’ve buried too many dreams. We’ve done enough. It’s not our bill to pay. It’s not our load to carry. 

It’s time. It’s time for white America to muster the same courage in owning the problem that Black people have mustered to fight it.

Allyn Brooks-LaSure works in the communications department at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.